Amending the Amerindian Act

Stabroek News
August 6, 2000

Earlier this year the Amerindian People's Association (APA) held its general assembly in Region Nine. Among the resolutions passed was one pertaining to the revision of the Amerindian Act of 1976. The assembly resolved that a joint committee of representatives from the Amerindian communities, the Touchaus' Council, the Government, the Opposition and the Human Rights Commission be charged with the responsibility of putting forward proposals for amending the act.

This task had originally been given to a Parliamentary Select Committee set up during the life of the last parliament, but its notion of expeditiousness equated more with dilatoriness than dispatch, and nothing was done. Needless to say, the current National Assembly has made no moves to do anything about the act this time around at all.

While the 1976 Act represented a significant breakthrough in one key respect, since it recognized communal title for Amerindian lands, it also retained elements of legislation dating back to 1902. These elements had been drafted in an altogether different era, when the colonial authorities in paternalistic fashion were attempting to protect the indigenous people from the worst effects of culture contact with miners and loggers. Nowadays, however, some of the provisions are offensive, and the APA assembly resolution rightly called for these to be brought into line with international standards on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Amerindians have enjoyed certain special rights since the colonial era, a few of which (both customary and enacted) date back to Dutch times. Throughout the centuries these have constituted a recognition that the Amerindian lifestyle is unique, and depends for its survival on a special relationship with the natural world. In recent times, however, those rights have been eroded partly on account of a certain lack of clarity in the legislation. It is not clear, for example, how far the savings clauses which preserve indigenous rights in the various statutes are consistent with some portions of the newer laws.

Moments of unanimity are few and far between in Guyana's parliament, so it was something of an occasion when all the parliamentary political parties harmoniously agreed that Cap 29:01 was in need of amendment some years ago. The present parliament has other things on its agenda, however, and it is very unlikely that it will see the need to set up another Select Committee to consider the issue in a pre-election year. As a consequence the opportunity has been lost not merely to put forward proposals to eliminate out-dated sections of the Amerindian Act and to revise its sections on local government, but also to spell out the details of all indigenous rights currently scattered throughout the legislation, so there would be coherence and consistency from a statutory point of view. (This would, of course, require minor amendment to statutes such as the Mining, Forests and State Lands Acts as well.)

After all these years of inertia, isn't it about time that the Government took the situation in hand, paid attention to the APA's recommendation and finally set in motion a process which really would end in a dramatically improved Amerindian Act, and a clarity about the rights which the indigenous people should be enjoying?

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